When you look at the list of 64 participants in this year’s NBC National Heads Up Poker Championship event, you probably assume that qualifier Bruce “BJ” Miller is one of the biggest underdogs in the bunch. The retired Air Force veteran is one of the few amateurs in this all-star field. While this may seem like a disadvantage, Miller has something going for him that most people in this event don’t—an air of mystery.

If you’re wondering how this great-grandfather who resides in Las Vegas ended up taking a seat in a national televised poker event, he got there just by watching his local news. Miller tuned in to the nightly news on NBC and saw an ad about how to win his way into the event. He opened up a free play account on, entered the code word for the promotion he saw on the commercial, and, a couple weeks later, he got a call that he was in. In the downtime, Miller even got some poker practice on the play for fun site, running his play for fun bankroll up to 200,000 chips.

Miller took a break from the play Wednesday night to head on over to Caesars Palace and rub elbows with the biggest names in the game at the NBC Heads Up draw party. According to Miller, poker’s celebrities were as nice in real life as they seemed on TV. “Phil Ivey stopped me and congratulated me for winning my way in the event,” said Miller.

The evening also gave him the chance to meet his favorite player, Hall of Famer Doyle Brunson. Miller approached Brunson to compliment the living legend and the two exchanged a few words before the draw began. During the draw, Miller met his first round opponent, Jean-Robert Bellande. After that though, he cut the socializing short and headed home. After all, he had work to do.

In between the party and his Round 1 match Thursday afternoon, Miller researched his opponent, a luxury Bellande did not have. He had to go into his match blind, unaware of how Miller, who admittedly has more experience in blackjack tournaments than poker tournaments, played. Miller didn’t give up much about his strategy before play began, though he did offer up one tidbit:

“I have a very Doyle Brunson style.”

Well, Miller did Texas Dolly proud in his opening bout. Over the course of an hour, Miller not only held his own against Bellande, he slowly whittled his chips away until Bellande was forced to frequently shove all-in preflop to pick up chips.   On the final hand of play, Bellande check-raised all-in with top pair and Miller called with the nut flush draw. He hit his flush on the turn, guaranteeing his spot in the second round.

You would think there would be some nerves when it came to taking a seat across from a professional poker player and in front of the cameras, but Miller was surprisingly unflappable about the whole endeavor.

“I was not nervous at all. I just had to figure out what his game plan was and, once I realized it, I went after him.”

Even though Miller felt he figured out what Bellande was up to and responded accordingly, he did not think that this opening round match was a walk in the park.

“I have nothing but praise for [Bellande], he is a good player.”

For Round 2, Miller will face off against another accomplished pro, the 2010 WSOP Main Event third place finisher, Joseph Cheong. Miller, who watches the TV coverage of the Main Event every year, is somewhat familiar with the young pro, but he will certainly become more familiar with Cheong’s aggressive style before play begins Friday afternoon.

As this first round has shown, preparation and the element of surprise is working well for Mr. Miller so far. If he can pull off one more victory, he will be guaranteed a more than $25,000 return on his freeroll seat and the kind of experience most amateur players can only dream about.